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Infidelity: An Issue of Nature vs Nurture?

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If we believe all the scary stats out there, cheating happens...a lot. The exact number of unfaithful lovers is hard to pin down (who wants to admit to the dirty deed?), but estimates of relationships affected by cheating typically hover around 50 percent. Yikes...

But rather than argue over how many of us cheat, the real question is why we do it. According to two studies released this year, we might have both our biology and our upbringing to blame for our infidelity. (BTW, here's Your Brain On: A Broken Heart.)

Nature
According to research presented by ASAP Science, the likelihood that your partner will cheat might be determined by their DNA. Infidelity involves two different brain processes. The first has to do with your dopamine receptors. Dopamine is the feel-good hormone that's released when you do something really enjoyable, like hit your favorite yoga class, whip up a delicous post-workout meal and—you guessed it—have an orgasm.

Researchers found a mutation in the dopamine receptor that makes some people more prone to risky behavior, like cheating. Those who had the long allele variation reported cheating 50 percent of the time, whereas only 22 percent of people with the short allele variation fessed up to infidelity. Basically, if you're more sensitive to these pleasure neurotransmitters, you're more likely to seek out pleasure through risky behaviors. Enter the extramarital affair.

The other possible biological cause behind your partner's wandering eye is their levels of vasopressin—the hormone that dictates our levels of trust, empathy, and our ability to form healthy social bonds. According to the researchers, having naturally lower levels of vasopressin means those three things drop: You're less likely to trust your partner, you're less able to have empathy for your partner, and you're less able to form that healthy social bond that rock-solid relationships are built on. The lower your vasopressin levels, the easier infidelity becomes.

Nurture
Researchers at Texas Tech University found that besides our biology, a lot of the impetus behind infidelity has to do with our parents. In their study of almost 300 young adults, they found that those who had parents who cheated were twice as likely to cheat themselves.

According to study author Dana Weiser, Ph.D., it's all about how our early views on relationships are shaped by the one we're most familiar with: our parents'. "Parents who cheat may communicate to their children that infidelity is acceptable and that monogamy may not be a realistic expectation," she says. "Our beliefs and expectations then play a role in explaining our actual behaviors."

Which Matters More?
So which is the better predictor of a wandering eye: Our brain chemistry or those early behaviors? According to Weiser, it's a true combo. "For most sexual behaviors, genetics and environmental influences work together to help explain our behavior," she says. "It's not a matter of one or another but how these forces operate in conjunction." (And while it may be a hush-hush topic, we found out What Cheating Really Looks Like.)

With both forces working against us when it comes to finding a faithful partner, does that mean we're totally screwed? Of course not! "A strong relationship is one of the best ways to reduce the likelihood of cheating," says Weiser. "Having open communication channels, making quality time, and allowing for honest conversations about sexual satisfaction can help strengthen our relationship bonds and allow us to negotiate any displeasure we have in our relationship."

The bottom line: Brain chemistry and early behavioral exposure are only predictors of infidelity. Whether or not we're more susceptible, we're still totally capable of making our own informed decisions. Keep the conversation about cheating open and decide what works and what doesn't for you and your partner.

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